By Tamsen Firestone, author of Daring to Love
We all know that feeling love and emotional harmony with your partner is wonderful; feeling angry is not! But anger is a natural part of life and is therefore inevitable, especially when two people share life closely. One of the biggest challenges a couple faces is how to deal with anger—both their anger toward their partner and their partner’s anger toward them.
But first, what is anger? It’s an emotion that is largely misunderstood. For one thing, anger is not a negative emotion. Some people regard it as bad or immoral and feel that becoming angry makes them a bad person. Others believe that anger is the opposite of love and feel that expressions of anger have no place in a close personal relationship. Still another common yet incorrect belief is that being angry with someone implies that you hate them. In truth, it is not bad or mean to be angry. Angry feelings are neither right nor wrong. In the wise words of the Dalai Lama, “Generally speaking, if a human being never shows anger, then I think something’s wrong. He’s not right in the brain.”
When you are angry with your partner
There are two fundamental guidelines for dealing with your anger:
All of your angry feelings are acceptable and should be allowed free rein in your consciousness.
The same freedom does not apply to your actions—you are accountable for your actions and bear full responsibility for all of your behavior and responses in relation to others.
These guidelines indicate two mantras to remember when dealing with anger. First, fully feel your angry feelings. Don’t judge them or minimize them. Don’t try to avoid them or push them down. Feel them all the way. It is important not to skip over these feelings, because they will influence your behavior anyway.
Second, decide how you are going to act. How are you going to express your anger? You want to communicate your feelings, you want to be heard, and you want to engage in a constructive dialogue. So, how do you do that?
Communicate your anger matter-of-factly. Simply say what you are angry about in a strong manner, without acting punishing. If you verbalize your frustration in a harsh tone or express your wants as demands, you will most likely provoke an angry response that will escalate the situation.
Be specific about the reasons you are angry. For example, describe your frustration, hurt, or disappointment. And avoid implying that your partner is responsible for your angry feelings.
When you are so angry that you want to call your partner every hurtful name in the book, don’t. When you want to make your partner squirm, don’t. When you want nothing more than to inflict pain and make your partner’s life pure hell, don’t. You can talk about these feelings without acting them out: “I want to hurt you. I want to humiliate you. I want to cause you pain! I want to say horrible, mean things about you! I want to punish you!” But do not act these feelings out.
When your partner is angry with you
It is natural to feel angry when your partner gets angry at you. When someone gets angry at us, we all have the same knee-jerk reaction—we feel angry back. Our reaction is quick and irrational: “Don’t get angry at me! Shut your mouth! I don’t want to hear what you are saying!” Quite simply, anger begets anger. And, quite simply, this isn’t dramatic. Again, don’t skip over your initial anger. Otherwise, it will continue to smolder and have a damaging effect on your communication with your partner.
When you do not allow yourself to be provoked into being someone you do not like, you strengthen your personal power.
In relation to how you respond to your partner, be sure not to retaliate with anger. Resist using the underhanded tactic so popular with many couples—saying the exact thing that will get under your partner’s skin and set him or her off. On the occasions when your partner uses this tactic with you, you can resist taking the bait. Remain respectful of your partner. Try to set aside your anger so you can listen and understand what he or she is saying and feeling. Strive to remain who you want to be, regardless of how your partner is acting. When you do not allow yourself to be provoked into being someone you do not like, you strengthen your personal power.
It is important to be accepting of anger and comfortable with it, both yours and your partner’s. Anger is a natural human emotion. In a close relationship, you need to be able to deal your and your partner’s anger so that it will not have a destructive impact on your relationship. You need to be able to express your own anger, and hear and respond to your partner’s anger. Ultimately, your goal is to heal the rupture that anger is causing in your relationship and to reestablish emotional closeness and trust with your partner.
Tamsen Firestone is founder and editor-in-chief of www.psychalive.org, an online mental health resource visited by millions of people each year. She has also been principal editor for many of the books written by her husband, author and clinical psychologist Robert W. Firestone. She is a coauthor of Daring to Love.